Wyboo resident celebrates milestone birthday
by Staff Reports | September 22, 2014 10:55 am
It will all work out.
That’s been Mary Walker’s “big philosophy” her entire life.
“And it does,” she said. “It always works out – maybe not the way you think, but generally for the best.”
That perspective – coupled with a beaming smile borne from a sunny disposition – has kept Walker going for 100 years.
The Nampa, Idaho, native on Sunday celebrated a century of living, surrounded by family and friends at the Wyboo Community Center who traveled from points far and wide to raise a glass of champagne, give out plenty of hugs and enjoy some cake.
“I think it’s because I’ve always just kind of floated along and enjoyed life. I’ve had my bad times but for the most part I’ve been very happy,” she said a few days before the birthday party on the back porch of the Wyboo home she shares with her daughter and son-in law, Judy and Pat Harper.
The Harpers moved to Clarendon County in 2003, and Walker arrived a year later at the age of 90.
“She said, ‘Whoever thought I would live this long? I didn’t expect to live with you 10 years,'” Harper recalled, laughing, as her mother laughs along.
“We’re delighted,” said Harper, a retired educator like her mother.
“Part of the reason I’ve lived so long – they take such good care of me,” Walker said, smiling. “I don’t have to ask for something. Somebody knows and it just appears.”
THE EARLY YEARS
Walker was born Sept. 16, 1914, to Robert Elmer Hamilton and Nellie Dell Richey, the sixth of eight children. She thinks her parents ventured from Nebraska to Nampa to strike out on their own and gain independence from other family members.
“My parents were really pioneers to Nampa and it was a pretty small town at that time,” she said.
Born in town, her family eventually moved three miles out to a farm on a hill covering 10 acres, about half of which was sagebrush.
“People thought we were way out in the country,” she said. “At the time there were no paved roads. It was either gravel or mud.”
Though they had pigs, chickens and milking cows, her father was a “contract farmer,” she said, who partnered with her Uncle Orrie and purchased a steam engine-powered threshing machine, which they would use to harvest wheat for a fee.
“There were no neighbors,” she said, “and alfalfa fields all around us.”
Just before Walker was born, the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand lit the fuse of World War I.
“I was born into the unrest of World War I,” Walker recalled in “The Grass Grows Greener Over the Old Outhouse … and Miss Mary’s other stories,” a collection of Walker’s stories Judy Harper collected, edited and published a few years ago. “My first five years were war years. The European front was raging, but the United States had not as yet entered the war. We, of course, heard our parents talking about the war in Europe.”
An armistice with Germany and subsequent ceasefire was reached in 1918, effectively ending World War I. Walker was four. The Treaty of Versailles would be signed a year later.
“And the thing was – I experienced the war time even though I was young. I remember so well the soldiers coming back on the trains – I learned the horrors of war,” she said. “I’d see these men crippled and missing limbs and I was only five by then.”
As a young child, she remembers when the townsfolk of Nampa gathered behind the post office to burn an effigy of the despised Kaiser Wilhelm.
“I understood what was going on,” she said.
In Harper’s book, her recollection of that event captures the nation’s mood toward a conflict in Europe that claimed millions of lives: “It was important and the adults cheered. It was great fun and I wasn’t scared at all.”
Right around this time, a massive influenza pandemic struck Idaho hard, sickening thousands.
“When I was five they had a real bad year of flu and my Dad got it, and it affected his heart,” Walker said. “He had to quit farming and became a mail carrier.”
Winters in Idaho were harsh and unforgiving.
“Lots of snow and ice,” she said. “It was so cold.”
Her father, ever industrious, would use a horse drawn sleigh to make his rounds. With warmed bricks and thick blankets, “it was neat” to get to ride along from time to time, she recalled.
At the age of five, her family moved to a different house, and she recalled in Harper’s book how their heat came from coal burning stoves and their light from kerosene lanterns. Her mother used a woodburning stove for cooking.
“My, I remember some wonderful smells coming from my mother’s kitchen. One of the jobs I had was to keep the glass shades on the lanterns polished clean,” she said in the book.
Though used to hardship, the family experienced tragedy with the loss of children.
“I had an older brother that died before I was born,” Walker said in the book. “Richey had been kicked in the head by a horse when he was three. He died and I never got a chance to meet him.”
Her family was also dealt another blow years later when infantile paralysis claimed the life of her older brother Charlie.
“We call it polio now,” she said. “He lived ’til he was 18.”
In recalling her upbringing, Walker remembers how her Dad was “kind of a joker.”
While he was working on a ladder reaching the vaulted ceiling, she and her brother Bob were playing below.
“And all of a sudden a peanut hit us on the head,” she said, smiling. “And we were pretty surprised. And pretty quickly another one hit us — these peanuts kept hitting us. Dad said, ‘See that hole up there? They must be falling out.'”
In Harper’s book, Walker recounts how April Fool’s Day saw her Dad pull off several pranks: One year he carved honeycomb candy out of wood and dipped it in chocolate. He also dipped cotton balls in chocolate and passed that off as candy.
“I loved being fooled first, then I got to watch the faces contort as the rest got fooled,” she said in the book.
While her mother was English and a bit more staid, her parents didn’t suffer from a lack of adventure. One of her fondest childhood memories is a family trip to Seattle in a great big car known as a Chandler Motor Car.
“My Dad was a farmer and did threshing and loved machinery better than he did horses so he the was first (person) in Nampa who had a car. Very few had cars,” she said.
His second car, the Chandler, “could have 10 people sitting in it.”
“I can’t understand how my parents did it but when I was five we went to Seattle and you know some of the roads were pretty bad,” she said. “There weren’t any motels or anything like that. We just had a tent and we camped out at night.”
She also remembers tasting pearl barley for the first time in a West Coast restaurant, and liking the new soup very much.
“I still love pearl barley in soup and I think it goes clear back to that,” she said in the book.
She still remembers that trip.
“On the way back an axle broke and we had to camp for a week,” while waiting for a replacement, she said. “A farmer let us park in his pasture.”
The family cut cedar branches for beds.
“We had a lot of fun but it must have been hard on our parents,” she said, smiling.
Walker’s school years at Kenwood Elementary are recalled vividly in Harper’s book. Walker’s teachers, Miss Butts, Miss Stone and Miss Nesbitt – and their personalities and idiosyncrasies – are recollected in surprising detail.
THE GREAT DEPRESSION
It was during her freshman year of high school, however, that the stock market crashed, and crashed hard.
“Everyone had been living high and then all of a sudden the big perks came to an end,” she said in Harper’s book. “We didn’t have any pocket change, but when we did have an extra five cents we would buy a candy bar. Milky Way had just come out.”
The school district cut extracurricular activities. No gym classes for girls. No dances. Lights were turned off at night.
“It was just bare bones,” she said in the book.
Only football remained, and Walker liked packing in the wooden bleachers with others for what is a timeless tradition.
“The Nampa Bull Dogs were well known and lots of families would come to see them play!,” she said in the book.
The economy had improved enough by her senior year to allow for prom. Though strict, her parents let her go to the dance.
“I had a boyfriend that year, named Gilbert Knighten,” she said in the book. “I had such a pretty store bought dress. It was sea-foam green. Real soft and luscious. We sure thought we had fun. I helped decorate for the prom. We spent hours making clusters of tissue paper wisteria. It was really pretty.”
After graduating from high school in 1932, Walker enrolled at Lewiston Normal School (now Lewis-Clark State College) to earn a two-year teaching degree. After teaching for three years, she was awarded a Life Certificate, she said in the book.
Finding employment was not easy in the midst of the Depression.
“You were lucky to get a job,” she said, and certainly felt that way when she found herself in Banks, Idaho, at the age of 19, teaching 34 children in a schoolhouse next to the Payette River.
“The eighth grade boys and girls were bigger than me but for some reason they like me. One kid liked me and asked me if he could be the bouncer,” she said, laughing. “I think I grew up more in that year one year than I ever had before. It was different and yet I enjoyed a lot of it because they were so good to me.”
She had met her future husband Buck at Lewiston and when they got married in 1935, she wasn’t hired back at the school in Banks due to Depression-era restrictions that only allowed one person in a two-person household to work.
“Jobs were hard to get and there were so many restrictions,” she said.
The two soon moved to De Smet, Idaho, after Buck was hired to teach at “a little country school” with one room, she said.
“I didn’t have anything at all to do so I taught music and the first two grades,” she said. “So they got two teachers for the price of one.”
A rough patch lay ahead.
“We had a bad time. Our first child (Clifford) didn’t live,” she said. “He was born early and didn’t have much to help him like they do today.”
” … We moved in with my folks,” she said in the book. “We needed to get back on our feet a little emotionally as well as financially. We wanted to help the folks out as much as we could. We saw one way to do this was to plant a tree in my folks’ back yard.”
She and her husband picked out a “wee weeping willow sprout,” for which they paid 50 cents, she said in the book. They planted it close to the irrigation ditch running through her parents’ back yard.
“It just so happens that the site we picked was over the old outhouse. My how that Weeping Willow tree grew!” she said in the book. “In about ten years the precious wee sprout grew to be so big that my Dad could build a good sized tree house for his grandchildren.”
Buck was hired to teach at Sunny Ridge in Nampa in a two-room school.
“So Buck taught the upper four (grades) and I taught the lower four grades,” she said. “We did that for three years and lived at the school in a cute little house right by the school. It’s a nice brick schoolhouse – in fact it’s still there and still used.”
They started a lunch program there, whereby the parents would furnish the food and a hired cook would prepare it.
“Oh, she was a good cook and that food was so good,” she said. “So our students got to have a good meal.”
Government intervention ended their pioneering lunch program, much to their chagrin.
“We did real well when we did it on our own but when the (government) came in it wasn’t good any more,” she said.
She got pregnant again and quit teaching. Buck got a job with the telephone company. She was out of teaching for eight years.
“Again it was the war (World War II) and they needed teachers so bad and I went back to teaching,” she said. “Anyway, I ended up teaching for 34 years. But I liked it. By this time they started to consolidate so you didn’t have little country schools anymore.”
It’s not easy for anyone to sum up their entire existence, especially if you’ve lived 100 years. And she’s lost two children – Rich was killed in a car wreck in his early 20s.
But through it all, she stays upbeat. She smiles a lot. She visits with friends and neighbors and likes to do some light housekeeping to help pitch in, even if she doesn’t need to. She walks. She enjoys card games on the computer. Her daughter and son-in-law love and appreciate her.
It’s really that simple.
In the morning she enjoys the enclosed patio. The sun bounces off the lake. Hummingbirds show up when Pat puts out their feeders. And Mary Walker sits with her breakfast, a cup of coffee and a crossword puzzle and drinks it all in.
And for Judy Harper, who would follow in her mother’s footsteps and teach – the family has several teachers – the outlook and perspective she’s gained from her mother have been invaluable.
“Everyone of us has a real adventure spirit,” Harper said.
And like the hummingbirds, Walker said she just “floats along.”
After breakfast, she walks a mile with a group of friends and neighbors.
“She’s better known here than I am,” Harper said, laughing.
And Walker laughs again, the smile omnipresent.
“My big philosophy is – it will all work out. When my husband was teaching at Nampa, he didn’t realize he was just filling in til the next guy came and so they didn’t hire him back. And it really made him feel really bad.”
Returning home from a friend’s wedding where Walker had been matron of honor, they didn’t know what was next in their plans.
“And he got to worrying so about it and I said, ‘Just wait, it will all work out.’ And it does. It always works out. Maybe not the way you think but generally for the best,” she said. So we got back to Nampa and they called and wanted both of us to teach at Sunny Ridge.”
Harper said her mother has passed along that sunny disposition “to all of us.”
“Well, it will all work out,” Harper said. “This too shall pass. We’re a pretty positive family. And happy.”
In Harper’s book, Walker said her childhood was wonderful.
“My parents were very fair with all of us,” she said. “We had so many varied experiences. I had so many adventures that many of my friends never had the chance to experience. I know without a doubt that my parents were such good parents because they unconditional love, sense of adventure and light hearts have been passed on successfully through the generations.”
“I am truly blessed with four generations of fun loving, adventurous children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”